Posts Tagged ‘Bret Easton Ellis’

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Imperial Bedrooms – Andy isn’t quite Clay in Bret Easton Ellis’s hands

April 4, 2012

So I found this in my favourite second-hand bookshop in Northcote. (“Signed!” chortled the chap who’s always behind the counter. “I should charge you half price really shouldn’t I, I mean someone’s scribbled in it! Ha!” He’s usually in better form.) Despite being told, ad nauseum, by Nettie that Ellis’s books need to be read in the order he wrote them, she encouraged me, after blogging on Less Than Zero in January, to hunt this one down. She’d be interested to see what I thought of Clay 25 years down the track.

Fuck me. Clay, you sad, sad fuck.

I preferred Less Than Zero – just. The writing in Imperial Bedrooms is probably marginally better but it seems like 25 years ago Ellis was one of these vicious fucks who sits down in front of a computer and bam, he’s writing like a dream. God I hate those vicious fucks. Imperial Bedrooms is good, it’s very very good, but one of the things I enjoyed about Less Than Zero was its lack of plot. What drove it was its nihilism, its amorality, its – i don’t know, it’s absence on so many levels. That was spectacular, and spectacularly done. Imperial Bedrooms has a plot. Kind of. And it’s well constructed, it’s well developed, it keeps the reader involved, it makes the reader take sides, and in that there are elements of nihilism and amorality because the side you end up on isn’t actually the kind of side any decent person would want to be on. But still. The reader takes sides. The reader wants to know what happens next, the reader wants to know how it’s all going to end.

Which isn’t quite how I remember feeling when I read Less Than Zero.

Lack of plot was a major strength of Less Than Zero. Reliance on plot in Imperial Bedrooms seems to me a bit of a weakness. It may be the only weakness, or certainly the only major one (the last line though, Jesus Bret couldn’t Clay’ve thought of something more original than that?). Clay, in his 40s, is a kind of repulsive, lecherous drunk. A successful-ish screen writer, as well, which actually makes him even more repulsive. Clay’s reliance on gin is at once familiar (ahem) and kind of gross. Also funny. Despite the metafictive mumbojumbo of the book’s first few pages this is very clearly the same character that narrated Less Than Zero, but 20-plus years older, 20-plus years drunker, more twisted, more bitter, more fucked up. Clay is awesome, in all the wrong ways.

Most of the other characters are as you might’ve expected them to be 20 years down the track as well, although why Clay’s ex Blair ends up married to a poofter I don’t know. I guess that stuff still happens in LA. Hell, I guess it still happens in Melbourne. Hell,  I know it still happens in Melbourne. It’s just that it’s … retarded.

Rip is arguably not what you might’ve expected him to be 20 years down the track but I suppose he was a little monster in Less Than Zero and he’s survived 20 years, and when monsters survive that long it’s probably not because they stopped being monsters. Or became smaller monsters. Still, there didn’t seem to be a continuity there, the kind of continuity that was clearly present with some of the other characters. Perhaps drug dealers don’t do continuity.

Julian, of course, is the wild card. Julian, arguably, was the character most egregiously abused in the movie version of Less Than Zero. Robert Downey Jr was great, of course, but the reality is Julian didn’t die at the end of the book. There wasn’t even the vaguest suggestion he was close to popping his clogs. So I have to say I smirked, possibly even laughed out loud, when at the top of page 9 of Imperial Bedrooms, during that early metafictive mumbojumbo section,  Ellis has his characters go to a cinema to see the movie of the book that somebody who wasn’t Clay wrote. (And of course Clay didn’t write it. Ellis did. Like, der.) Julian – the real Julian, not the Robert Downey Jr Julian – the real Julian – or at least Breat Easton Ellis’s Julian – is deeply distressed by the depiction of his death on the big screen. Clay, being Clay, seems vacuously amused by Julian’s distress.

And then on the bottom of page 9 of Imperial Bedrooms Julian, 20 years later, has been tortured to death. This is not a spoiler. I don’t think telling someone what happens nine pages into a book (seven pages actually, it starts on page 3) constitutes a spoiler, even if it is the death of a character with which you may have had something of a twisted emotional attachment for more than half your life. That’s the bit that amused me. Movie death in the eighties at the top of the page, “real” death a couple of decades later at the bottom. Clever. Manipulative. Wink-at-the-camera stuff.

To mark the release of Imperial Bedrooms a year or two ago it seems all of Ellis’s books were re-released, with similarly designed covers. Imperial Bedrooms has an image of what appears to be a devil on the front. There aren’t many characters in this book that deserve to be described as anything more or less than demonic. The re-release of Less Than Zero, I mentioned in my January post, has an image on the front that reminded me of a zombie. I don’t think that was intentional because it’s more of a computer game zombie I’m thinking of, not a proper zombie. But it was kind of cool to see Ellis, in his latest book, referring to the characters in his first book as zombies.

Because they are. They all are. And they’re all zombies in this one, too.  So I guess maybe what we should glean from this is that America is full of zombies. The End.

Maybe.

Less Than Zero was better than Imperial Bedrooms, I think. But Imperial Bedrooms is still very, very good. Better than most of what you’ll read in the next few months, I suspect.So if you’re some kind of weirdo and you’ve read Less Than Zero and enjoyed it but you haven;t read Imperial Bedrooms yet and look there just aren’t those kinds of weirdos out there are there but if you’re one of those weirdos… Do yourself a favour.

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Less Than Zero – Andy is quite happy to Disappear Here

January 18, 2012

“What’s right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it.”

No, I don't know what's going on here.

I saw the movie of Less than Zero when I was at university. I don’t remember being terribly impressed, I just remember thinking Andrew McCarthy and James Spader and Robert Downey Jr were hot and given back then I was still a pentecostal happy clappy, movies with hot dudes were one of my few joys. Anyhoo. For some mysterious reason until now I have never got around to reading a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Despite being a voracious reader. I can’t tell you why. Perhaps because the movie wasn’t impressive, perhaps because in the early ’90s I was hanging out with some seriously fucked-up dudes who thought American Psycho was hilarious and who read to me the bits with the rats in. I’ve read McInerney, though only a couple and not Bright Lights, Big City. But Ellis? No. Perhaps because I thought his first name should have two t’s.

That said, Less than Zero was probably the first book I named when Netty and I decided how we’d handle the Revisited section of the Challenge this year. I have, after all, been listening to Netty rant endlessly about how, like, totally awesome Ellis is for many years. And, just to put Netty out of her misery, because I know she’s reading this thinking “For fuck’s sake DID YOU LIKE THE FUCKING BOOK OR NOT???” I’ll say that while Less than Zero isn’t exactly perfect, it’s seriously impressive.  And yes, I’ll be reading more Ellis. Soon.

Incidentally, you can read Netty’s thoughts on Less than Zero, together with Bright Lights, Big City,  here.

Alienation? Tick. Nihilism? Tick. Amorality? Tick. A truly delusional sense of entitlement, as evidenced by the quote at the top of this post? Tick. Ellis gives us a snapshot of a ludicrously affluent group of people and then strips away the trappings of that affluence to show us what lurks beneath. And it’s utterly vacuous and utterly repellent.  There’s little in these people that passes for conscience or anything that might vaguely resemble basic human decency. The narrator, Clay, is held up by some (including Netty) as morally superior to the other characters and he might be, but barely. Sure, Clay might not be able to stomach the snuff movie and he might not want to take advantage of Rip’s little sex slave – but he doesn’t actually do anything about it, either. He just walks away. The body in the laneway might make his hands shake so much that he drops his joint (damn!) but what does he do? Nada. So he might not be quite as alienated, as nihilistic, as delusionally convinced of his “right” to whatever he wants… But he’s not far off. Presumably it was this slight differentiation that the moviemakers picked up on 25 years ago, amplifying it into a character unrecognisable from Ellis’s. Not that I can really say that with any authority, of course, because I haven’t seen the movie since 1988. (It was released in ’87 in the States but didn’t make it to Australian cinemas until March the next year – or so imdb tells me, anyway, and that jells with my recollection.)

Ellis’s style is revelatory. I’m not sure “stream of consciousness” is quite right – James Joyce and Virginia Woolf make my nose bleed (something Clay can relate to, although for different reasons). Ellis’s narration is compulsive, almost addictive – I read Less than Zero very, very quickly. But there’s some impressive skill at work here. The dialogue is mostly dextrous and deceptively flip – like Hemingway’s in The Sun Also Rises, there’s usually a hell of a lot more going on than meets the eye. Although sometimes the “hell of a lot more going on” is a hell of a lot of nothing at all. There’s an exchange towards the end of the book between Clay and a character called Kim, with a dude trying to play LA Woman on the guitar and an anorexic junkie intermittently screaming for no apparent reason (other than being an anorexic junkie) in the background. It’s a small, surreal masterpiece. It is effectively content-free. And it is superb.

One of the book’s aspects that seriously spooked the Hollywood horses was its sexuality. Clay is bisexual, as are a number of the other male characters. In the movie Clay is straight and he is disgusted when he realises his old mate Julian is trolling his ass to pay his drug debts. In the book Clay is not especially impressed that Julian is hustling – but also sits in on one of Julian’s appointments in hopes of drumming up a little extra cash. Noice. What’s interesting, I think, is that there’s an unconscious sexism to this. It’s been generally accepted for years (and science these days is backing this up – have a look at a book called Sex at Dawn, which I read just before Less than Zero) – that female sexuality is far more fluid than male sexuality. And yet in Ellis’s world it’s the men who are bi, it’s the men – including Clay – who lazily take what they want while the women, to some extent, are there to satisfy the male characters when that’s what they want rather than a bloke. I might be reading too much into this and I might even be misreading it – there may be references to female bisexuality, but they didn’t lodge in my brain.

A couple of last, daft observations: the cover of my copy has a picture of a bloke on it that looks like a zombie. To me. Which is perfectly apt, I think.

And that sense of entitlement. Christos Tsiolkas was interviewed while The Slap was screening on TV and made a comment about some of the characters in the book, the ones in their late 30s and early 40s, having a sense of entitlement. That hadn’t occurred to me but it’s fair enough. The characters in his book are roughly the same age as the characters in Less Than Zero – Hector and Aisha and the rest of them, if I remember correctly, would’ve been going to uni in the early to mid ’80s, just like Clay. Completely irrelevant, and completely different books about completely different characters from completely different backgrounds. But still. The sort of worthless little titbit I like to throw out there every now and then.

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